About the Cover
In this issue we focus on two major themes in our 80-year history: prayer and innovation. These stories show how we pray and then, quite often, we pivot: buying skateboards to hang with middle schoolers, meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of kids temporarily stationed in an arena and calling on older/retired staff to care for our newest leaders. These plans come about because we speak with the One who delights in our asking for His direction.
Photo by Kathi Inglesby.
From March 29 to May 24, 2021, the Freeman Coliseum Expo Hall in San Antonio, Texas, served as a temporary shelter for 2,010 unaccompanied migrant boys between the ages of 13 and 17. The story had received national media attention by then, covering everything from the challenge of COVID-19 mitigation to urgent calls for volunteers to render care.
“Freeman Coliseum is in our area, firmly on the east side,” Eric Collins, area director of Young Life San Antonio East, said. As he searched for more information online, the beginnings of an idea took shape, and the first person he called was his staff associate: Felix Chavez.
A year earlier, when Eric had found himself in need of a new staff person, he asked a close friend to apply. After some consideration, she told him no. “I know someone who would be better at this,” she said, and introduced Eric to her 59-year-old father.
Offering the job to Felix was an easy choice. “It was just apparent,” Eric said. “He studies Scripture, it’s written on his heart so much that he almost solely speaks in it.”
Eric quickly filled Felix in on the situation unfolding at the Coliseum. “We have to do something about this,” he said.
Felix was all in. “Yeah, brother — just tell me what I gotta do.”
Gaining entry into the Coliseum followed a strict protocol. It took two forms of identification just to get in the door. All volunteers had to submit to COVID-19 testing every three days.
Once inside, each volunteer was assigned to a specific section. “There’s 16 cots to a section,” Eric said. That first day, May 3, he and Felix were assigned to sections next to each other.
“It’s 9:30 in the morning,” Felix recalled. Most of the boys in his section were still asleep. “So I say, ‘Hey, wake up!’ And I start to share with them what the Lord had put in my heart to share.”
At first, only nine or 10 kids paid attention. Then six more. Then 30. “And the Lord starts to touch them,” Felix said. “They were crying, and we were able to pray together. We sang a couple songs to Him, and it was amazing.”
“Within five minutes, Felix is leading a revival,” Eric said. “They’ve got their hands in the air, they’re worshipping.”
As the day progressed, Eric and Felix began floating to other sections, helping out wherever there was a need. “They had a separate area where they took kids who were troubled,” Eric said, recalling how one of the workers — a woman whom Felix already knew from church — invited them to come speak with one boy facing serious depression.
After speaking with the young man at length and managing to get a smile before leaving, Eric and Felix returned to their posts to find themselves in hot water. “We were supposed to stay where we’re assigned,” Eric said. “We got shut down. That’s how that day ended.”
Day two, they stayed where they were told. In the meantime, Felix continued to draw every kid he met into his orbit, stirring their hearts toward Christ. More singing. More laughing. More hands lifted high in praise.
“It was a good day,” Eric said.
By day three, word had spread about this man who carried revival with him wherever he went.
“I get to the registration table,” Felix remembers, “and the lady there tells me, ‘I like how you bring revival in here. You can go wherever you want to go.’ I said, ‘What?’”
It was true — Eric and Felix received special permission to float as they pleased among any section, any time.
After that, Felix said, “We were having club two or three times a day, every single day.”
They learned many of the kids staying at the shelter already knew Jesus. They had come to the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — regions heavily impacted by Christian missionary efforts. Sharing the gospel, then, quickly shifted to preparing the boys for the days after they eventually left the Coliseum.
“It became a matter of: you know who Jesus is,” Eric says. “You know what He’s called us to do — go be a light in the community that you’re headed to. Serve, love your neighbor, pour out your heart to this country and you’ll see beautiful things happen.”
Felix encouraged the boys to pray for each other’s future placement. “Start praying for your brother,” he said, “and watch what happens.”
“Just like that,” Eric said, “these kids start getting assignments to their forever home. And they’re celebrating. They’re running up to Felix, like, ‘Brother Felix, brother Felix, we prayed for him, we prayed for him and he found his home!’”
The first time it happened, Felix called for everyone within earshot to pray for the young man who was about to leave. “There were almost 800 kids, plus all the volunteers, plus all the staff, so I think maybe a thousand people,” Felix recalls. The boys gathered around the young man who was preparing to leave, they extended their hands toward him and prayed for his journey.
The “amen” that closed the prayer, Felix said, made the walls tremble.
The children had come into the Coliseum with few belongings. Most wore cheap rubber slippers that were handed out when they first arrived. “They didn’t have shoes,” Eric said, “and they’re about to go to God knows where.”
Eric called friends and collected some quick donations, including a $1,500 contribution from Redeemer Presbyterian Church that San Antonio Metro Director Annie Mays helped to secure. “I also had some Goodwill gift cards I was given and I’m buying every decent shoe I can find.”
Meanwhile, Felix’s wife came to the shelter and began measuring shoe sizes.
“We wrote down how many of what size we needed,” Eric said. “It was a mad scramble to Walmarts and Targets to buy these kids some shoes.”
“We were able to bring around 200 pairs of tennis shoes, over 400 T-shirts and around 100 pants and shorts,” Felix said. “We were able to do all that in just 24 hours.”
The Coliseum essentially served as a way station for many of the boys on their way to family members who already lived in-country. “I was sitting with a group of four boys,” Eric recalls, “and I asked them, ‘Where’s your family?’ One said Seattle. One said Houston. One said Omaha. And one said North Carolina. So that just blew me away. Literally, all over the United States.”
As their time with the boys grew short, they needed a way to help them reconnect with Young Life after they left the Coliseum.
“I’ve got a very faithful donor in my area,” Eric said. “She had donated Bibles to our ministry before, and Felix said, ‘Call her now.’ So I call her and tell her I need as many Bibles as she can get us. So she orders 700 Bibles. I had 24 giant packages on my doorstep two days later.”
Now they needed to put something in the Bibles that could point the boys to the nearest Young Life club. “We called Annie,” Eric said, “and by the next day, she had produced 700 stickers that read, “Jesucristo es mi luz,” or “Jesus Christ is my light” in Spanish, along with Vida Joven — Young Life in Spanish — and a web link to find a local Young Life group.
“We let them know: wherever you go, you can just type that address in, find a Young Life group. There’s people who will love you there.”
Felix had an idea for another sticker. This one, he explained, would read, “In the beginning, God created __________,” leaving a space for each kid to write his name.
With 1,400 stickers ready to go, another group at the Coliseum handed Felix another stack of stickers — this one had a number for the human trafficking hotline.
“They need that hotline,” Eric agreed.
Two thousand stickers later, they handed out as many Bibles as they could before the kids left the Coliseum for good.
By May 24, Young Life had enjoyed the opportunity to serve the 2,010 boys at the Freeman Coliseum Expo Hall for 21 days. “The last ones left around 6:30 in the morning,” Felix said.
To date, Eric has not received word whether the kids they met at the Coliseum had connected with another Young Life group, but he knows it may be a while before he does.
“A lot of these kids,” Eric said, “will be attending school for the first time this semester. Most of them only speak Spanish. They were taught a little English while they were in the Freeman. There’s no telling who they’re gonna be in front of.”
Wherever they land, they carry with them the undying light of a living promise — one they have seen and touched, and can now give to others.
Elsa Puerner quickly adjusted her iPhone into photo mode.
The Young Life area director for Central Jefferson County in Golden, Colorado, knew something memorable was about to happen. With a simple click, she captured an image that summed up ministry in a pandemic.
There are two people in Elsa’s photo. The first is Chase Campbell, one of three Colorado School of Mines students who serve as volunteer WyldLife leaders at Bell Middle School.
In the image, Chase is flat on his back in the middle of the 21,500-square foot Ulysses Skate Park.
The other person pictured is a daredevil-ish Bell Middle School student.
“A kid bet Chase he could jump over him on his bike,” Elsa said. “So Chase just laid down in the middle of the skate park while this kid jumped over him.”
The perfect photo op, easily worth a thousand words.
Prior to the pandemic, skate park hangouts would have not been the picture of ministry for the Bell Middle School WyldLife leaders. Instead, leaders were deeply embedded in the fabric of the school, never missing Friday morning breakfast in the cafeteria; they also served as tutors.
When the pandemic hit, however, there were no students at the school, and the leaders had to adjust.
“All of the Young Life events in our area had to be outside,” Elsa said. “Originally, we thought, ‘We’re going to do a hangout at a park attached to the middle school.’ We would meet, and then all of our kids started coming with their skateboards and would go over to the skate park.”
So naturally, meeting kids where they were meant leaders making a quick trip to the mall to purchase their own skateboards!
As contact work transitioned, Bell Middle School WyldLife leaders like Isaac Dukes and Laura Gonzalez learned experientially that incarnational ministry can happen at a halfpipe.
“We really had to think, ‘Where are the kids in our community hanging out, and how can we be part of what’s happening in middle schoolers’ lives?’” Elsa said. “It was a no-brainer being involved at the skate park. I feel like we got to meet a bunch of kids we wouldn’t have met in a typical year.
“You could tell kids were like, ‘Oh, you actually care about what I care about in this world.’ I think kids and parents were really grateful for the connections built, especially in a year of so much isolation.”
For her part, Elsa learned ministry doesn’t have to be complex.
“That’s one thing I never want to forget from this season is just how simple ministry is,” Elsa said. “It’s really changed the focus from creating events for kids to just being with kids. I feel like my leaders were doing what Jesus did by sharing their lives and being relational. Ministry can be as simple as showing up at the skate park, seeing the kids who are there, and investing and sharing our lives with them.”
Eighty years ago, on October 16, 1941, Jim Rayburn and the board of directors formally incorporated Young Life in Dallas, Texas. We do well to remember, however, that the ministry began years before, 60 miles north in Gainesville, Texas. Before Jim stepped foot in the small town, Gainesville High School already had someone caring for it. This was Clara Frasher (whom you’ll read more about on page 18), who began praying for the students in Gainesville before Jim Rayburn ever thought of it.
She prayed and recruited others to pray. They showed up for six years before Jim entered that school with a vision. Two years after that, Young Life was founded, along with a period of innovation in youth ministry that the world had never seen before.
It began with prayer. If you take nothing else away from this magazine, please remember this: begin with prayer. In Mark 3, as Jesus calls the disciples, the Scripture says He went up on a mountain and called them. “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15, ESV). Before He asked the disciples to speak or to stand against evil, what did Jesus want?
To be with them.
Do you hear His voice calling you to the mountain and saying, “Be with me”?
Ask Him for what you need and the needs you see around you. Sometimes, like Clara, He will provide someone to answer your prayers. Sometimes, like the disciples, He will ask you to open your mouth and speak what is true, and beautiful, and good.
For eight decades the people of Young Life have begun with prayer. And it is through prayer, as we speak with the Father, prompted by the Spirit, in the authority of the Son, that we are driven to new things. Prayer gave Jim new vision for Young Life camps. Prayer — and listening to God — helped the earliest leaders realize they needed to spend time with kids outside of club and meetings. Prayer has allowed us to see God’s hand at work and ensure we are in step with Him.
Prayer has sent us into 104 countries, helped us see new groups of kids we passed by before and sustained us during times of strife or struggle — including a global pandemic. In fact, our staff just finished a global day of prayer where we stopped what we were doing and, together, prayed to our God. I’m excited to see the new ideas and innovation that will spring from it, because they will.
God is always up to something.
After we are driven to our knees, we are driven off of them to reach and teach more kids. We are excited for the future, and as we ask, “What’s next,” we know God is faithful and active. Or, as I wrote earlier, He’s always up to something. And we know He wants to do this work in us and through us, just as Jesus called the disciples.
In this issue of Relationships, you will see ways Young Life leaders have been innovative: Caring for kids at the border. Reaching out via social media during some of the heaviest days of the pandemic. Caring for staff through the voices of experienced encouragers. These innovations are possible and lasting because our bedrock is prayer. It has been for the last 80 years and will continue to be for the next 80.
One of my prayers is for you, as it is for all our staff, volunteers and donors. I pray we could, as a community together on a mission, first be with Jesus. Please hear His kind call to be with Him. Second, I pray we would speak and proclaim the gospel in all we do. Third, I pray we would stand against everything that traps and hurts kids from experiencing new life.
As you read these pages, may you hear God telling you a small bit of what He’s up to, and may these stories deepen your walk with Him.
College freshman Dylan was scrolling through his Instagram feed one frigid afternoon last February. Thanks to the pandemic, his social life at Baruch College in New York City had been as chilly as the empty benches in Central Park. But that was about to change.
A few weeks earlier, Dylan had posted his profile on an Instagram page for college students, hoping to somehow connect with his peers in the city he grew up in. He clicked on a direct message he received from a guy named Ryan, who introduced himself as someone who was trying to start a new organization for college students. Would he be interested in Zooming to hear more?
“There wasn’t much going on so I thought, ‘Why not?’” Dylan said. “‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’”
The DM was from Ryan McSwane, who’d arrived in New York City in September of 2020. He was excited to kick off Young Life College in Manhattan, but with most every relationship avenue shut down, he wasn’t sure how to start spreading the news.
“I tried all kinds of things, but it was hard to get anything going,” Ryan said of his early months in the city as college director. “In February 2021, I found this Instagram page of incoming freshmen who were posting their profiles and trying to meet people. There was a page for every college we were trying to reach and around 300 to 400 students posting. So I followed and DMed everyone I could.”
Ryan was transparent with the students who replied and asked for minimal commitment — a short Zoom to hear more. During the call, Ryan explained Young Life and invited his new friends to join a small group. Fifteen students said yes.
“Students are open to whatever as long as you are up-front and make your intentions clear,” Ryan explained. “I told them from the get-go, ‘I want you to know Jesus and I’m going to pray for that. But if you decide not to, we’re still here, we still care, we still love you.’”
Like the city itself, the group was made up of young adults from all walks of life. They met on Zoom through April with a unique pursuit.
“We didn’t read the Bible,” Ryan said. “I didn’t share the gospel. The goal was to learn as much about them as we possibly could. The time was designed to foster relationships and deep conversation. There was a lot of loneliness out there, and we wanted to step into that.”
Ryan created that depth and intimacy by focusing on two things during what he calls the “Developing Friendships” phase of the group: Stories That Matter — a time each person shared their life story and how faith played a role — and Questions That Matter, where the group discussed topics like forgiveness and purpose.
“We aren’t a group for skeptics; we’re a community of friends who make time to talk through things that matter,” Ryan explained. “Deep conversations create deep friendships, and our group certainly has depth.”
As the group and the need grew, Rachel Silver — who became a Christian while attending college in New York — started volunteering as a leader in the spring and later joined staff.
“It’s been amazing to see how quickly everything happened,” Rachel said. “On the third Zoom call, everyone was getting personal and vulnerable, emotional even. I felt God’s presence throughout the call. Students here are usually guarded emotionally, and relationships can be pretty surface level. So for them to be that open was amazing.”
The Young Life College Manhattan group — representing 16 different countries and myriad faiths — grew to 21 friends, with 15 committed to meeting weekly. Once the lockdown was lifted, the group met regularly in person, both to deepen relationships and just have fun. As a result, the ministry doubled the number of students who were regularly engaged.
Ryan developed curriculum to strategically lead this melting pot of community and connection to an understanding of Jesus and ultimately, give them the opportunity to develop a relationship with Christ, grow in their faith and share that with others.
Through the fall of 2021, Ryan’s original group will walk through “phase two” together called “Come and See.” And at least two more new groups of 10 to 15 students each will kick off phase one, building trust and friendships through deep conversation in a safe space.
“Students care when they are cared for and believed in, when you pursue them, call them, invite them over for pizza or to Central Park to hang out,” Ryan said. “I told them my goal for (this) semester is that they will have all the information they need to make a decision about Jesus, and they are all down for that.”
Now a sophomore at Baruch, Dylan has been a faithful member of the original group from the start. He lives in Brooklyn, about an hour-and-a-half train ride from Ryan and most of the events they’ve been able to do in person. But he never misses a chance to hang out.
“School was remote, so I hadn’t met too many people,” he said of his freshman year. “When the group first met, we started deep instead of working up to that, and that’s made everything else easier. I formed close connections with a variety of people from different cultures, and now we hang out all the time. We’ll talk more about Jesus in the future, and I look forward to making that decision. But whatever happens, I’m committed to these relationships.”
Ryan and Rachel say the uncertainty of the times hasn’t stopped God from working in big ways. An end-of-semester weekend at Lake Champion resulted in six students becoming more involved in group leadership and more invested in developing a relationship with Jesus.
And DMing on Instagram is still drawing college students. Every Tuesday at Central Park, new friends are showing up, asking questions and getting connected.
“God has been kind to us,” Ryan said. “Relationships are strong, and we love each other well. And we want to keep growing together and growing in our knowledge of Jesus.”
Marfa, Texas (population 1,800), lies 62 miles north of Mexico in the high desert plains of West Texas. The small town’s combined junior and senior high school is home to 100 students. It’s these kids (and many more on the outskirts) who occupy the heart of Connor Travis.
You see, Marfa is where Connor and his wife, Caroline, have put down roots to start Young Life.
It’s a lonely existence at times. The next closest staff person is four hours away, and Connor’s supervisor is eight hours away. The young married couple are Young Life in Marfa, a town where the vast majority have never heard of the ministry.
“Young Life is new here so the name doesn’t carry any weight,” Connor explained. “Since it wasn’t usually a topic of conversation, it got to the point where I would sometimes forget I was on Young Life staff.”
Because Young Life is all about relationships, it’s easy to think staff and leaders are continually working shoulder-to-shoulder to help kids meet Jesus. Sadly, Connor is not alone in this isolation, as many small, remote areas in the U.S. and around the globe can attest.
Six years ago at Young Life’s New Staff Training, JC Bowman, U.S. field director of Small Town Initiatives, and Pam Moore, senior director of Learning and Leadership, offered a seminar for staff associates (men and women who have been on staff less than five years) who act as area directors.
Expecting around 10 folks to show up, they watched in awe as more than 100 staff walked into the seminar. This was about one-third of the entire New Staff class that year.
The two staff veterans asked attendees how far away they live from their immediate supervisor (typically a regional director). Many said two or three hours away; for staff in Alaska, it could be about eight hours away. Because many regions don’t have the travel resources for supervisors and staff to meet on a regular basis, it can be challenging to overcome the geographic barriers. The program is designed then to serve not only the staff but their supervisor as well.
JC and Pam, along with Sha Farley, Young Life’s chief human resources officer, came up with the idea of enlisting senior and retired staff to come alongside these new charges and just be their “encouragers.” They called the program “The Barnabas Project.”
Why “Barnabas”? The New Testament follower of Christ was a man whose life bore out his name, which means “son of encouragement.”
“Our older staff are not mentors, trainers or supervisors to the younger staff,” JC clarified. “They’re simply friends who come alongside other friends and offer encouragement.”
Most of the encouragers and the staff associates do not live geographically close to one another, so encouragers call their friends one to two times a month and ask four questions:
Supervisors across the U.S. recommend young staff for the program. Now in its third year of existence, The Barnabas Project sees about 15 pairings begin each year.
“Some of our encouragers are retired; they get to share the Young Life story and continue the legacy. While we’ll always be looking forward, we remember where we’ve come from too.”
JC is quick to point out that the encouragement does not just move in one direction. “It’s also been a gift to our seasoned and former staff, as they tell the story of the work and the mission to the next generation; it’s fun to watch these relationships grow and bless both sides.”
JC would know firsthand about these blessings as the Boise, Idaho, resident is the one encouraging Connor in Marfa, Texas.
“When we introduced the idea of The Barnabas Project, Connor’s regional director, Holly McLean, immediately recommended him as a candidate. As I prayed about who I would encourage, Connor’s name kept coming up. It’s been a great privilege to come to Marfa and meet the people there. My dream for every encourager in the project is to visit the staff person and be boots on the ground — walk the area, see what’s going on and meet the key people.
During his visit JC found Marfa unique when it comes to kids, and Connor affirmed this. “The students we’re in relational ministry with come from over 10,000 square miles along the Texas/Mexico border representing Presidio, Brewster and Ft. Davis counties, as well as Chihuahua, Mexico.
“Big Bend Young Life serves within communities that are by and large underserved — but our rural border towns are rich in culture, community, and kindness. My ultimate goal for this area is for it to be led locally and I’ll become a volunteer.”
Until that time, Connor continues to serve faithfully while letting others pour into him. “Regional retreats are very far away, but my supervisor has been great with weekly calls. Alongside that training, JC fills in a personal gap. He asks about and challenges me in my personal life — my marriage, family, friendships and time with the Lord. As an individual I feel loved and supported and that’s not connected with my job performance.”
“I am still in awe of the work we do,” JC said. “I marvel that folks like Connor and Caroline would go to this little town in Texas and plant their family there, while loving kids and adults in a way that’s going to affect the whole community. I’m honored to hear his stories, dreams and visions.”
As a college volunteer, Melanie Sawatzki helped begin the Young Life ministry in Point Lookout, Missouri. She soon sensed the Lord calling her to Young Life staff and became the de facto area director right out of school.
At first everything seemed on track. Even though she was in a small-town setting, Melanie felt OK about heading into her first year on staff.
“I didn’t think I needed encouragement at first,” Melanie said, “but when I got to talk to Pam, it was so significant and life giving to have her believing in me.”
Melanie would need that encouragement even more than she realized, when the world soon shut down halfway into her first year. To call her introduction to staff a challenge would be an understatement; six months in, the pandemic hit and the small town ministry shut down.
“When COVID hit, I felt lost,” Melanie said. “It was baptism by fire. The work here basically died during the pandemic and needed resurrecting.”
So while Melanie was engaged in what could be called “A Lazarus Project,” she found comfort through Pam and The Barnabas Project.
Melanie saw in Pam wisdom and experience she could apply in her own situation. “Pam is someone who has made it this far in Young Life and is thriving; she could offer encouragement from the other side, a perspective I didn’t have yet. Her listening ear on those regular Zoom calls helped relieve my burdens as I shared my expectations and issues, both spiritual and emotional.”
“Melanie and all our field staff on the front lines are my heroes,” Pam said. “She was doing every piece of the job — developing committee, finding leaders and training them, leading club, managing finances and doing an exceptional job. It’s a lot for a new staff person to be a functional area director.”
As someone who has worked with countless men and women throughout the mission, Pam knows a gem when she sees one. “Melanie is mature and wise beyond her years; she has incredible spiritual depth. When we first met, she said, ‘Can I hear your story? I want to know more.’ She has such an open, sensitive, learning posture. She models both depth and character.”
These qualities helped Melanie slowly right the ship capsized by COVID-19. In 2021 the college campus opened again, three new couples joined committee and she has hired a part-time staff person to start Capernaum and a part-time admin as well.
“It’s been such a gift and blessing to be Melanie’s encourager,” Pam said. “And I love JC’s vision for small town staff, how we can be a safe space as we offer support to help them thrive.”
Matt Shea came on Young Life staff in 2019 to start the work in an area that’s never had Young Life — Fayette County, Pennsylvania, located south of Pittsburgh, and north of Morgantown, West Virginia.
Like Melanie in Missouri, Matt was only on staff for six months when the pandemic hit.
“This is a pretty isolated place; southwest Pennsylvania is a distinct culture from other nearby areas. When COVID hit, I hadn’t been here long. I didn’t have any friends nearby; it felt dark — like things could go south, and the area might not make it.”
Chuck Jamison, Matt’s encourager, could sense the weight bearing down. “On our first call, Matt said, ‘The hardest part is I’m alone and I just don’t feel like myself when I’m alone.’”
These feelings brought back strong memories for Chuck. “It takes me back to finding my way during my first years on staff. I’ve shared with Matt some of my stumbles — and that even the year I retired I felt like I was still learning how to do this job.”
Matt said, “It meant so much to know I have Chuck as a steady, reassuring voice in my life. I knew he was thinking and praying for me. This has been one of the most revealing and hardest years of my life.
“It was humbling to not have kids know about Young Life and therefore not have club or Campaigners. I had to be OK with that. But I’ve learned much from Chuck’s Christlike spirit: how to live like Jesus did — in humility, full of the Spirit, with childlike faith and purity.”
The 69-year-old encourager said he’s thrilled to be part of The Barnabas Project. Chuck said, “When JC bounced the idea off me it was an immediate ‘yes.’ The retention of staff is so critical; many leave in their first five years. When people make it past the five- and 10-year marks, there’s a greater stability.
“Historically we’ve thrown a lot of people out there and said, ‘Go get ’em, tiger!’ It was by the grace of God that I and many others have survived. Kudos to Young Life for thinking about this.”
Matt is equally enthusiastic. “The Barnabas Project has been one of my ‘highlights’ in this new job. I will forever cherish my conversations with Chuck. How awesome to walk away with a new lifelong friend; to know you have someone to confide in and who’s praying for you carries so much weight.”
YEARS ON STAFF: 44
ON STAFF IN FOLLOWING AREAS: Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Grand Junction, Colorado;
Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Boise, Idaho
CURRENT ROLE: U.S. Field Director of Small Town Initiatives
YEARS ON STAFF: 38
ON STAFF IN FOLLOWING AREAS: San Diego, California; Pasadena, California;
Colorado Springs, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska
CURRENT ROLE: Senior Director of Learning and Leadership
YEARS ON STAFF: 44
ON STAFF IN FOLLOWING AREAS: Anoka, Minnesota; Owatonna, Minnesota
CURRENT ROLE: Minister-at-large in the North Star Region
Young Life Adventures in Santa Cruz, California, is a discipleship-focused camp where high school students experience adventures like surfing, hiking through a river in the redwoods of California, mountain biking along an ocean bluff and kayaking with sea otters. Each morning one cabin of campers heads out for a dawn surf session to start the day.
The program is all about fantastic adventures and going deeper with God and one another. Campers become part of a close-knit community, learn more about following Jesus and have experiences they’ll never forget.
“This was our 20th year of running camps,” said Courtney Thomsen who, along with her husband, James, runs the Young Life Adventures Santa Cruz and Baja programs.
In all those years, this summer seemed especially significant in the deep life transformation that took place in the hearts of our campers and interns. I think the weariness we all took into summer had caused many of us to question our ‘belovedness,’ connection and worth, with many articulating that they felt like they were ‘not enough’ or didn’t belong. But week after week we saw Jesus shine brightly through these very interns, as they vulnerably shared their stories and hearts, messy, broken, and yet beautiful in their journey to believe the love of Jesus for them. And as these stories were shared, campers heard the truth about themselves and began to believe that Jesus really is present, loves us in the midst of our mess and chooses to enter in and live with us and transform us through His love.”
For more information about Young Life Adventures, contact the Thomsens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: In our continuing series looking back at some of our core methods, you’ll see many of these stories previously appeared in various publications on the mission.
Before Young Life was an organization or even a vision, it was a prayer. In fact, “80 years of prayer” is actually an understatement! In 1933, the Lord laid a burden on the hearts of one woman and her friends to gather weekly and intercede on behalf of local kids.
Since that time, our Lord’s tender mercies toward Young Life can be seen in the millions of lives He’s changed, the camps He’s provided, the work He’s begun in new places and so much more. What follows are a few stories about our conversations with the Lord and His gracious answers.
In the small Texas community of Gainesville, Clara Frasher had a front-row view of the town’s teenagers. Every morning and afternoon, the elderly woman sat on her front porch directly across from the local high school and watched the crowds of students pass by. From her rocking chair she observed a newly emerging youth culture, complete with its own slang, music, fashions, and attitudes.
She was also aware of another trend among 1930s teenagers—a growing disenchantment with organized religion. As a churchgoer herself, she saw firsthand that their interest and participation in church was waning. How, she wondered, would these kids ever hear the Good News?
Seeing these lost students was more than Mrs. Frasher could bear, so she prayed, “I don’t know what I can do, but I pray someone will rescue these kids. They don’t know where they’re going. They’re just wandering back and forth, and going where, nobody knows.”
Mrs. Frasher soon invited a small group of women to meet on Monday mornings and pray for the kids at Gainesville High School. The answer didn’t come in a few days. Or weeks. Or even months. For six years these friends faithfully called on the Lord’s help. And when the time was right the Lord moved in a way that would prove to be more than they could ask or imagine.
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story)
Every Young Life camp acquisition has been an answer to prayer (typically offered by adults). Frontier Ranch’s “origin story,” however, is a beautiful exception to this rule.
In 1950, while serving on work crew at Silver Cliff, Cy Burress and Jerry Kirk would often hike up the mountain behind camp to read the Bible and pray. On one such trip they saw another camp directly above them, the Round-Up Lodge for Boys.
“They actually prayed Young Life would someday have that camp,” explained Bob Mitchell, who was their work crew boss that summer. “When we heard what those kids were doing, we counseled them to pray more appropriately and not ask God for stupid things like that—especially right after He’d given us Silver Cliff. It’s a wonder we didn’t ruin their prayer life. Instead they strengthened ours.”
Undeterred, Cy and Jerry continued to pray. Meanwhile, [Young Life founder Jim] Rayburn was also aware of the ranch, and carried a passion for it that matched the boys’ prayers. At the end of the summer, Rayburn served as guest speaker at Round-Up Lodge’s banquet. Driving out of the camp that night, he confided to Maxine, “Max, these folks don’t know it yet, but this place doesn’t belong to them anymore. I asked our Father for it this evening.”
In October, Ted Benson came across an ad in the back of The New Yorker magazine, which touted a half-million-dollar boys’ camp for sale “in the high Continental Divide country of Colorado…” Benson gave the ad to Rayburn as a joke, suggesting the two go in 50-50 on the price.
To Rayburn, however, it was no joke; it was in fact a confirmation from the Lord. While the ad never mentioned the camp’s name, Rayburn knew this had to be Round-Up Lodge. After some investigation, it was indeed confirmed to be the camp just up the mountain from Silver Cliff, now listed at an asking price of $350,000. Rayburn approached the board in January about the unbelievable opportunity that lay before them. They approved the purchase, as long as Rayburn could raise the money from foundations and donors (preferably new ones). Rayburn’s first meeting was with the owner of Round-Up Lodge, Dr. E. Alfred Marquard. As a result of their meeting, Marquard dropped the asking price down to $250,000.
Rayburn crisscrossed the country via train to find the funds, and after “two months and many miracles later,” he raised the entire amount from nine donors. Later, Rayburn took staff up to the newly named Frontier Ranch, where they dedicated it to the Lord. “We prayed in every building in that place,” said Roy Riviere. “We were overwhelmed with what God had given us!”
Frontier Ranch hosted its first campers a mere six months later, in July 1951. As Emile Cailliet wrote in his book, Young Life, “From beginning to end it was all ‘a miracle beyond belief.’”
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story)
Our founder, Jim Rayburn, was passionate about prayer. Alongside the countless hours he spent in personal prayer, he often called the staff together for all-night prayer retreats at Frontier Ranch, where they would thank the Lord for His provision and ask for help about cares only He could meet.
Oswald Chambers wrote: “Prayer does not equip us for greater works — prayer is the greater work.” Because we often associate the word prayer with the word work, it’s understandable that we take it quite seriously. It doesn’t mean, though, that those who pray must be dour and joyless when coming to the Lord — especially when other Young Life staff are involved. Consider this story from one overnight prayer session …
“One time I recall we were all kind of half asleep and we were talking to the Lord about things we were really ashamed of. One of the young staff men — a guy named Van Nall — confessed to the Lord that he had gotten so desperate for income that, rather than waiting on the Lord, he had started to raise chickens on the side and sell them.
“As Van was saying that, a fellow by the name of Art Rech was nodding off and just heard Van confess something about chickens. It was Art’s turn to pray next and when he did he prayed, ‘Lord, forgive Van for stealing those chickens.’ Well that broke up the meeting as we all cracked up!”
(From Letters to a Young Life Leader, by Bob Mitchell)
Over eight decades we have implored the Father to help us establish new work in new places. Today we have Young Life ministries in over 100 countries, and it seems that with each one the Lord delights in revealing His plan in His timing!
After their indirect influence on the work in Korea, Bruce and Beth Sundberg left the states in 1972 to make a direct impression on the Philippines and other parts of Asia. The country had begun Young Life seven years earlier and the Sundbergs were excited about the prospect of strengthening the country’s leaders, like Eli Yasi, while expanding the work into Manila.
By 1975, Sundberg was meeting regularly with the president of the Philippine Senate.
“All that time I never mentioned anything about Young Life as I had a sense I was not to. However, I was praying all along about the kids of the Philippines.”
One day, a senator’s aide handed Sundberg a copy of the recent Saturday Evening Post article on Young Life. The senator (who had no knowledge of Young Life, much less Sundberg’s involvement in it) wanted to hear Sundberg’s thoughts on the article and how to reach kids in the Philippines!
“So the next morning, after the meal,” Sundberg said, “the senator turned to me in the presence of all those leaders, and asked, ‘Bruce, please share with us about the article on Young Life and your thoughts about reaching out to the youth of the Philippines.’ Incredible!”
“I shared with the Fellowship the Young Life article, including a few things, of course, that were not in the article. There was a very animated discussion that day and a common consensus reached by the end of the meeting that they wanted a Young Life-type outreach in their country. Then they turned to me and asked if I would implement it. In my fondest dreams and hopes that was what I had prayed would happen, because as soon as they did that I knew that it was their work; it was no longer mine.”
(From Made for This: The Young Life Story)
We read in Psalm 91 that the Lord “will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” We have found this to be true — whether that’s as a mission, a country or an individual. As staff and leaders around the world have undergone trials of many kinds, we have found comfort resting “in the shadow of the Almighty.” Decontee and her fellow Liberians have firsthand knowledge of this profound truth.
The Ebola crisis in West Africa began in March 2014; nearly two years later, on January 13, 2016, the World Health Organization declared the last of the countries affected, Liberia, to be Ebola-free. Before Ebola, only 50 licensed doctors were available to serve Liberia’s four million people. It was predicted that by 2016, over half the population would be wiped out.
But God had another plan.
One of Young Life’s Developing Global Leaders, Decontee, became infected with the Ebola virus in August 2014. One of her Campaigners kids physically carried her, at great risk to his own health, to the hospital.
When they arrived, there was no bed for Decontee because of the hundreds of Ebola patients, so she was left under a tree where the staff occasionally brought food to her. Alone and helpless, she prayed for a miracle. Eventually, she was moved to the hospital where she fell in and out of a coma.
In the days that passed, Decontee memorized Psalm 91. She prayed every day, asking for God’s protection and reflecting on His promises of “deliverance from the deadly pestilence” as she wandered in and out of consciousness, uncertain whether she would survive. During this time, the Young Life community in Africa and many others around the world committed to pray Psalm 91 for 91 days for the areas affected in West Africa. They began in October, and at the end of the 91 days the Ebola crisis was over. The Centers for Disease Control had predicted one million infected by December. Baffled health officials struggled to know why Ebola ended so much sooner than anticipated.
Almost three weeks after Decontee checked in, she was released from the hospital — Ebola free. Later that month, she returned to donate her blood to other Ebola patients, who also recovered.
(From the Spring 2018 Relationships article “Bringing the Light,” by Kelsey Carr and Dana Knowles)
In a mission filled with gifted speakers, funny program directors, talented musicians and winsome leaders, may we never forget those men and women whose primary focus is to spend unseen hours interceding on behalf of Young Life.
If you’re one of our “prayer warriors,” we’re deeply indebted to you for lifting the needs of this mission up to the Lord. Only He knows how many kids have been reached, ministries started, leaders raised up and relationships restored through the prayers of His saints.
As 2021 winds down we’re still quite aware that apart from Jesus we can do nothing. So we continue to kneel before the Lord of this work, thanking Him for all He has done in the past 80 years and seeking His leading in our efforts to reach adolescents.
Because, just as we’ll never stop talking to kids about Jesus, we’ll also never stop talking to Jesus about kids!
August 30, 1942 – July 14, 2021
By Gary Parsons, former Senior Vice President, Young Life Former Soviet Union
Jimm Edgar faithfully served on Young Life staff for 52 years. His support of the work in California and the Former Soviet Union helped change the lives of countless kids.
Jimm met Christ in Young Life in Spokane, Washington. He eventually came on staff in 1969, and for the next 36 years served in various leadership and development positions in Northern California.
In 2005, Jimm joined Young Life’s Former Soviet Union Division (FSU) as a regional field development associate.
We began as colleagues in the mission, but Jimm did not have much family other than his beloved wife, Bettie. He often said, “You and your daughters are my family.” That was the beginning of Jimm becoming not just a brother in Christ, but a true brother and a part of our family.
His consistency in the way he loved and supported the ministry and our family through all the challenges we faced, was extraordinary. He flew to Moscow for every graduation and different FSU countries for major ministry events. His generosity was endless. Jimm and Bettie provided plane tickets for Jeanne and I, as well as Young Life FSU leaders, so we could attend events all over the world. Over the last 25 years, Jimm was a true ministry partner in the FSU, always available to do anything he could to advance the work. Jimm would show up anywhere in the world, at any time, to do whatever was needed to help.
In Acts, Barnabas (the name means “Son of Encouragement”) traveled with Paul. He was a good and thoughtful man, and this best describes Jimm to me. In so many ways, to all of us within the FSU community, he was our own Son of Encouragement.
There will never be another like him — he was beloved and he is dearly missed.
June 29, 1923 – June 23, 2021
By Jeff Chesemore
Arnie Jacobs dedicated his entire adult life to introducing kids to Jesus, serving on Young Life staff for 64 years and volunteering two more years after that. Prior to coming on staff, Arnie served with the Marines in World War II and saw action in the first wave on Saipan, Tinian, Iheya Shima and Okinawa; he was awarded the Purple Heart among other commendations.
He married the love of his life, Mary Lou, and officially started with the mission in 1955 in Dallas. He would go on to work with kids in South Carolina, North Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis.
In 1982 Arnie was on to England:
By the early eighties, 95 percent of fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds said church was “painfully irrelevant.”
Arnie and Mary Lou Jacobs began a new adventure—an outreach to the kids in England. Theirs was a unique approach; for three months every year the couple would stay in England, training church leaders in relational evangelism and helping establish models of youth ministry. Then they would return to the states, as the indigenous leaders owned the work in their home country.
The leaders in England were discovering one of Young Life’s time-tested principles—as they took the time to forge relationships with kids, they found their young friends more willing to trust them. Arnie recalled, “A kid in Oxford said to Pete Ward, one of my good friends [leading the work there], ‘You are the safest person I know.’ That’s good. I would like to be called a safe person for anybody, but particularly high school kids.” (From Made for This: The Young Life Story)
Arnie was preceded in death by Mary Lou, his wife of 71 years. He is survived by his son, Larry, daughters, Suzie and Julie, and their families.
Mali is one of the largest countries in Africa, with a population over 20 million. It is a difficult place to reach teenagers because of the heavy Muslim influence and political instability (95% of the population practices Islam and only 5% identify as Christian). However, since 2009 Young Life in Mali has grown to reach over 16,700 kids (in 2019), through 90 ministries and 10 national staff. Even with so many hurdles to overcome in 2021, leaders knew 11,039 teens by name and saw over 2,600 kids at club each week.
Ministry continues to grow in Mali, thanks to the leadership and investment of Senior Regional Director Tiowa Diarra (who now oversees Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal) and Regional Director Aïssata Deborah Samaké. Deborah took the country leadership reigns from Tiowa in May 2021 and is one of five women who serve as regional directors in the Africa/Middle East Division. She started the original club in the area of Bamako, Mali’s capital and largest city. Deborah has a tremendous heart for kids, and currently leads Young Life at a high school in Bamako. Praise God for Deborah’s faithful and wise leadership. She is paving the way for more female leaders in Mali to rise into their God-given gifts of leadership.
Deborah is preparing a way for significant growth in Mali by cultivating a strong leadership team and, in return, hopes to see every teenager know the love of Jesus.
Young Life is a mission devoted to introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.
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